When conservative white evangelical preachers denounce ex-Pres. Donald Trump's law-abiding, Christian political opponents as Satanic baby traffickers, they are violating a Constitutional Amendment designed to ensure the separation of Church and state.
Signed into law in 1954 by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, the bipartisan Johnson Amendment forbids tax-exempt churches, religious schools, and 501c3 nonprofit charities from endorsing or opposing political candidates or raising money for political campaigns. If a ministry violates the amendment, the IRS is supposed to revoke its tax-exempt status and require it to pay taxes.
That seldom happens.
"The Johnson Amendment is a toothless tiger," attorney and Liberty Counsel founder Matthew Staver told Raw Story. Liberty Counsel offers pro bono lawyers to conservative pastors fighting battles against abortion, same-sex and COVID vaccinations. "No church has ever lost its tax exemption as a result of this amendment. This Johnson Amendment will eventually be repealed. If the IRS ever tries to enforce the amendment, it will be ruled unconstitutional under the First Amendment."
The amendment was not controversial when it was passed. Republicans and Democrats crafted it to serve two purposes that the founding fathers wanted: preventing bogus 'holy wars' by churches condemning others for political purposes, and allowing houses of worship to spend their money on charitable causes in their communities without the burden of taxes.
Florida-based Liberty Counsel is classified by the IRS as a tax-exempt ministry although it does not list food pantries, helping the disabled, staffing homeless shelters, or other charitable outreach among its services. Last Saturday, as Floridians were digging out of hurricane debris, Liberty Counsel posted an urgent alert on its website that slams Rev. Ralph Warnock, Georgia's Democratic Senator headed to a December runoff election.
"URGENT UPDATE: The U.S. Senate returns on Monday to VOTE NEXT WEEK on the (Dis)Respect for Marriage Act," Liberty Counsel begins. "Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) plans to use the vote to sway the Georgia Senate runoff. HR 8404 will legalize every perversion of marriage you can think of. Going far beyond same-sex marriage, this bill forces every state and territory to give legal recognition to the crazy marriage laws of any other state—including California’s sick child bride laws that allow pedophiles to marry children. But it is even worse than that, thanks to the rabid LGBTQ lobby that seeks to punish any who refuse to bow to their gender-bending sexual perversions. Any church, business, nonprofit organization, school, adoption center or even a private person will be forced to comply and participate in the madness—or face Department of Justice investigations and massive civil lawsuits designed to bankrupt Christians who insist on God’s plan for marriage."
(HR 8404 actually proposes that states who do not recognize same-sex marriages as legal respect the legal status of same-sex spouses married in states where their unions are legal.)
There's a nationwide effort encouraging far-right pastors to defy the IRS by openly supporting GOP candidates, and rendering the Johnson Amendment impossible to enforce. The Black Robe Regiment, supported by Trumpers Mike Lindell and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is the most famous. Black Robe proudly refers to Liberty Counsel as its partner. Staver was a star speaker at an October conference where pastors were taught how to lobby and be political activists at a gorgeous lakeside Coeur d'Alene, Idaho golf and spa resort.
Liberty Counsel's website encourages churches to donate to its ministry which staunchly opposes same-sex marriage and is anti-abortion, and does not support LGBTQ rights because it takes the stance that "there is no evidence a person is born homosexual" and calls for schools to "indoctrinate" children to embrace heterosexuality.
Liberty Counsel is closely affiliated with Liberty University, founded in Virginia by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. Falwell launched the 1970s Moral Majority movement that made far-right Christian extremism into a GOP political powerhouse.
One of Liberty Counsel's clients is Liberty University, which just claimed a record-breaking enrollment of 15,800 on-campus students. Staver was dean of Liberty University School of Law for over eight years. He and Falwell Sr. launched the law school in 1989 with the goal of it being a tool to adapt U.S. law to conservative Christian views.
Liberty's law school students dream ambitiously. The school built "a 330-seat courtroom that contains the only known replica of the U.S. Supreme Court bench, accurate down to the angles and measurements," the website says. It's a place where students can practice for the day when they may be arguing a case before America's highest court.
Staver may have even met a conservative Supreme Court justice because of his place on the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy. CNP members include Ginni Thomas (bogus conspiracy theory superspreader and wife of Justice Clarence Thomas), Trump adviser Steve Bannon, Heritage Foundation president Kay Cole James, disgraced National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre and the executive vice president of the pro-Trump Family Research Council (which won IRS status as a church despite a public outcry).
The poster for Staver's posh Idaho conference refers to the "separation of church and state myth."
Interestingly, one of the issues the Idaho conference stressed is that Christian pastors must embrace "public school exit." The assumption is that public schools can't provide a morally sound education so an alternative to teaching kids must be found. On the website, a list of dangers faced by students in public schools scrolls past photos of elementary school students. The dangers include "brainwashing, bullying, transgenderism, fake history, globalism, suicide, depression, violence, gangs, climate change, Marxism."
That hodgepodge is intriguing because there are dangers that parents of all political views would agree children need to be rescued from: depression, bullying, gangs, fake history, and violence. But the list maker torpedoes chances of valuable problem-solving discussion by adding bizarre boogeymen like "brainwashing," "Marxism" and "globalism" that don't appear in normal elementary schools.
The Texas Tribune, Pro Publica, and the New York Times recently documented ministries that seemingly violate the Johnson Amendment, yet face no repercussions from the IRS or the Department of Justice. Some Black evangelical pastors told Raw Story that they disagreed with their inclusion in the articles because, as private citizens, they retain the right to endorse or oppose candidates. They noted that many white evangelical pastors mentioned in the reports don't bother with that distinction and endorse candidates from the pulpit during worship services.
The most flamboyant may be Global Vision Bible Church’s Tennessee Pastor Greg Locke. Last year, he told his church, as its pastor, that "Hollywood pedophiles are gonna be exposed. Fraudulent sleepy Joe, he's a sex trafficking, demon-possessed mongrel. He's of the left. He ain't no better than the Pope, Oprah, Tom Hanks, and the rest of that wicked crowd...(God's) going to expose Kamala Harris for the Jezebel demon that she is."
YouTube deleted Locke's channel this month because he consistently violated community standards like smearing people as pedophiles who are not pedophiles.
But video snippets of his defamatory sermons are still posted across YouTube.
When Locke screamed the following at his congregation this spring, the nonpartisan watchdog Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a formal complaint with the IRS.
"If you vote Democrat, I don’t even want you around this church. You can get out. You can get out, you demon. You can get out, you baby-butchering election thief," Locke screeched. "You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. I don’t care how mad that makes you. You [can] get as pissed off as you want to. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. … They hate this nation! … You cannot be a Democrat and a Christian. You cannot. Somebody say “Amen.” The rest of you get out! Get out! Get out in the name of Jesus."
In that sermon, Locke also defended the insurrection and vowed that another insurrection would erupt soon, saying the Bible says Christians will take back the government by force.
Satan is the only one in the Bible who shares Locke's view. In the gospel of St. Luke chapter 4, verses 1 through 13, Christ is fasting and praying in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights when the Devil appears. He takes Christ to a mountaintop and shows him all the nations and kingdoms of the world. He offers to seize them and deliver them to Christ if He will become an ally. Jesus rejects the Prince of Lies with this famous retort: "Get thee behind me, Satan!"
Locke apparently did not want an IRS audit of his church's finances. He responded to the FFRF complaint by publicly renouncing his tax-exempt status. But cofounder Annie Laurie Gaylor told Raw Story that the IRS never told her foundation that Locke's tax-exempt status was removed.
Gaylor says FFRF has successfully gone to court to get the IRS to fill a job crucial to investigating the abuse of the house of worship classification.
There are pastors violating the Constitution," Gaylor said. "But it's a hard battle; the IRS used to publish a list of organizations that lost their tax exemption, but it hasn't done that for 15 years. I'm not sure the IRS even requires people like Greg Locke to announce on their websites when they no longer have tax exemption."
The IRS is unlikely to take as bold a position as Christ on a mountaintop. But Locke apparently was not eager for anyone to scrutinize his finances. He said he would surrender tax exemption for his megachurch. But as of Monday, the donation page of his Global Vision Baptist Church does not mention whether donations are tax deductible or not.
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